...oh, this review is going to be a long one. I hope you can stick with me!
Karen Sandler’s ‘Tankborn’ is set in the intriguing, fictional world of Loka, a planet which Sandler’s characters colonised when Earth became uninhabitable. The characters in ‘Tankborn’ live on the continent of Svarga, which appears to be the only inhabited continent on Loka. Svarga’s society is rigidly structured; inherited economic status dictates a person’s place in society, the respect due to them and the districts of the continent that they are allowed to live in. The highest level of society is inhabited by the trueborns, humans born with inherited wealth waiting for them. Within the trueborn grouping there are three economic divisions; high-status, demi-status and minor status trueborns. This hierarchy was reportedly created by the varying contributions that each section of society made to re-establishing society on Loka:
‘It all had to do with how they’d started on Loka, the richest taking the top of the pile, all of them the same lovely colour as Devak – she pushed him out of her mind again- then that middle group that eventually settled into demi and the rest into minor-status. The lowborns has been in servitude from the start, so they were easy to understand, although a few of them has close to that cherished skin colour, the sekai said….
The non-humans were at the bottom of the pile, of course.’
As you can probably tell from the quote I’ve shared, economic status on Loka often intersects with skin colour. High-status trueborns often exhibit a particular skin colour, which due to its associations with wealth and power has become ‘that cherished skin colour’, in the same way that some skin colours are often idealised in our own world. While many real life cultures often idealise the white skin colour, or a pale skin colour, on Svarga the ideal skin colour is described as ‘a rich medium brown’. Interesting, right? I’ve seen authors such as Bernadine Evaristo and Mallorey Blackman write novels about alternate universes, where they attempt to highlight racial power imbalances through satire by making white people the dis-empowered class and black characters rulers, but I think this is the first time I’ve seen a novel position people with dark skins as the societal elite and
make the majority of lower status skin colours that skin a colour that falls in between the poles of white and black.
Sandler’s author note explains that the culture of ‘Tankborn’ is ‘…inspired by my long-ago conversations with an Indian born co-worker named Azad…I’d been fascinated by Indian society and that caste system for decades…’. I know a little about that caste system, but I don’t pretend my knowledge is extensive, so I can’t examine whether there are problems with the way she applies this real life version of caste to her sci-fi world, or whether this particular interpretation will satisfy readers who know more about the Indian caste system than me. What I can say is that by using a different configuration of race and economic status Sandler ensures that the majority of the book is about characters that have black, or brown skin colouring. White people don’t often feature in the conversation this book is having with its readers (although there is one white character side character, who is a villain, but by no means the only villain) and that is refreshingly different in a world where a large percentage of the novels published focus near exclusively on white characters.
The racial composition of Svarga’s society becomes an especially exciting concept if you consider what it may suggest about the society of the Earth the early Lokans originally came from. As far as I can work out none of the main characters are white (like I said, there’s a white character who appears a few times, but his role in the story is limited) and being pale white seems to be extremely uncommon, much less common than in the real life western world. Perhaps the reader is intended to believe that the early settlers of Svarga came from a fictional version of Earth that resembled our world, but that only one country, or continent with a population where it is more common to have darker skin tones (say India, as the social hierarchy is based on Indian caste system) survived. Alternatively, Sandler could be deliberately writing an inverse vision of the pervasive, near all white dystopias, which seem to believe that there will be no (or very few) people with dark skin in the future, so the logic behind why most of Svarga’s population displays varying degrees of brown skin colour isn’t important.
These ideas are never explicitly verified in the text, or author’s note, so I’d like to suggest a third interpretation. Based on the racial makeup of Svargan society and the fact that the upper echelons of society have dark skin, it’s possible that the Earth which Loka’s people left behind, was totally different from our own world, with a different racial makeup. Perhaps the Earth the characters in ‘Tankborn’ mention is as much a sci-fi/future projecting creation as Loka is. I’m more used to seeing dystopian novels where a terrible catastrophe has befallen our own world and it’s exciting to see a sci-fi author potentially change that up, making the entire basis of her fictional world a science fictional (and racially progressive) concept1
It’s important to note that Loka isn’t totally segregated by skin colour. Racial segregation seems to apply mostly to trueborns; high-status trueborns generally have the coveted skin colour, while trueborns with lighter or darker skin colours seem to end up as demi-status, or minor-status trueborns. Colour privilege is certainly part of this society, at both trueborn level and lower down in society. Still, some lowborns have the coveted trueborn skin colour, but remain in their economic class, while some high-status trueborns exhibit skin colours that are seen as less desirable (like white, or dark black). Demi and minor-status trueborns, may buy their way into a higher level of society by securing adhikar land (precious land gifted to trueborns at birth, as their inherited right). Economic status is, I think, the defining factor in Sandler’s society, although skin colour plays an important part in deciding a character’s ranking within the higher reaches of society.
The sci-fi society that Sandler has created is highly complex and one of the best bits of ‘Tankborn’ in my opinion, so excuse me while I delay talking about the specifics of plot and continue to chat on about that aspect. The heroine of ‘Tankborn’, Kayla, is a GEN; a Genetically Engineered Non-Human. GENs are a despised group who make up the bottom layer of Loka’s economic caste system, but also fall outside of this structure. While the trueborn and lowborns who populate Loka are all locked into their own pre-defined economic and social places, they are all born as free citizens. GENs are created by trueborn scientists (they grow in a tank, hence the name of the novel) so that one day they may serve society. They are controlled by enforcers, monitored by a tracking system and confined to living in certain sectors, unless they’re serving on assignment. While they aren’t chained and are supposedly protected by human rights edicts, GENs are effectively slaves.
I’ve read books before that feature a genetically engineered under class, like Paulo Bacigalupi’s ‘The Windup Girl’
, but nonetheless I think the GEN’s of ‘Tankborn’ allow for a new exploration of how society enslaves people. Kayla and others like her are made using manipulated DNA, which allows them to grow a special kind of archived brain section. This part of their brain, which can be accessed by pressing technology called a data pack to a tattoo on their cheek, is used to upload their slave assignments and to reset a GEN if they act in a way their captors disapprove of. As the book progresses and the reader finds out much more about the creation of GENs, the development of them as a sci-fi concept becomes the most fascinating aspect of the novel. The GENs have religion, a liturgy which has been given to them by their creators, but has been sincerely embraced by the GENS themselves. The religion contains the idea that ‘suffering makes us great and will bring rewards in the next life’, a powerful rhetorical argument which was used to control the poor of England in the eighteenth century. So, here we have a group of slaves whose minds are controlled from birth through rhetoric and religion, who are then physically controlled through a genetic modification to their minds, which can be accessed by technology. The reader gets both an interesting and effectively disturbing sci-fi metaphor and a realistic, disturbing exploration of how constructs of reason can be used to control.
At the beginning of the book Kayla is approaching her fifteenth year, the time when GENs receive their first assignment and start to work. GENs are changed, or genned, in the tank to have special, enhanced skills (skets) that enable them to carry out tasks which society needs a labour force to complete. According to their sket, they take places with high-status trueborns, or work in industries run by demi and minor-status trueborns, or work as apprentices in the GEN community with healers or nurturers. Kayla has been genned with strength and she expects to be assigned to a fetch and carry type of assignment. She is therefore surprised to find herself assigned as carer to a high-status trueborn Zul Manel. She is even more surprised to find out that his grandson, Devak Manel, is a dreamy trueborn boy she met briefly when he helped her little brother, right at the beginning of the book.
I want to take a moment to take a moment here to talk about Kayla’s family. As GENs aren’t born, but built in a tank, GEN children are raised by older GENs who have been given an enhanced care-giving sket. Kayla lives with her GEN mother Tala and her brother Jal. Although only fifty or so pages are devoted to their family life, before Kayla leaves her family (after which Kayla gains the traditional independence, many YA protagonists need so they can go adventuring) their relationships feel believable, close and established. Jal is an especially lively character and the inter-play between him and Kayla reads as the affectionate teasing often found between siblings:
‘ “So what happened with that high-status boy?”
“Nothing. He just asked if you were okay.”
“He was smiling at you.”
A hot flush rose in Kayla’s face. “He wasn’t!”
Jal guffawed. “I saw him. I was watching from behind the kel-grain warehouse.”
“You were supposed to run home!”
“I did. After I saw you making eyes at him.” '
I adored this section of the book and wished there could have been more time spent looking at the family, even though I understand why this might have put obstacles in the way of plot. Later in the book the Manels are portrayed as a much more troubled family and these relationships, while often broken also feel extremely genuine. The family members act like real people who have spent their whole lives together, rather than characters that have been shoved into the same house. The creation of family relationships is one of the real strengths of ‘Tankborn’.
Now, here comes the part of the review where I try to explain why despite the intriguing sci-fi, the likeable female protagonist and the believable family relationships, ‘Tankborn’ often felt like it was fudging it’s creation of humanity and society. As always, my feelings are complicated.
Unusually, for me, my feelings about ‘Tankborn’ are impinged on by other novels that I’ve read. There’s no doubt that I had more questions about the way the world of ‘Tankborn’ worked, because I read it straight after I’d finished ‘Page from a Tennessee Journal’
by Francine Thomas Howard. Howard’s novel is a piece of historical fiction which presents a difficult examination of a relationship between a black woman who takes over her husband’s duties, sharecropping for a white man and the white man himself, who uses his racial privilege to oppress and abuses her, while believing he is romancing her. I found myself comparing the real life world of this particular historical novel to the sci-fi world of ‘Tankborn’ because ‘Tankborn’ features a romantic relationship between a member of an oppressed GEN class, Kayla and a member of Svarga’s elite, power class, Devak.
Devak differs from the privileged male character in ‘Page from a Tennessee Journal’ because he isn’t physically, or mentally abusive towards Kayla. He has been raised by his grandfather to treat GENs with respect, although, due to competing socialised training from his father and peers, he sometimes stumbles in this progressive behaviour. As Devak is kind and exceptionally progressive compared with much of the rest of his society, I had no problem believing that once Kayla fell in love with him, they could have a kind and equal relationship. However, I did think that Kayla fell in love with Devak really fast and easily, considering that he is still a member of a class which holds all the GENs down. In fact, Devak’s links to GEN abuse are even stronger than other high-status trueborns as his father is in charge of controlling the GENs, using the tracking Grid to monitors the movements of GENs who stray outside their assigned areas. Kayla doesn’t even fully realise that Devak harbours progressive feelings about GENs, until late on in the book when he shows that he’s in love with her as well. She constantly feels he must be revolted by her and he is often gruff when he speaks to her. Considering all these factors I would have expected her to feel more conflicted over the fact that she was falling in love with him.
There are totally plausible reasons why Kayla is still able to love with Devak, despite believing herself inferior to him and despite the fact that Devak often struggles to be nice to her. Novels like ‘Wench’
, by Dolen Perkins-Valeez, explore why a slave might still love their oppressors. The kind of reasons Perkins-Valeez presents (internalised racism, or trickery and deceit on the part of the oppressor) don’t seem to apply to Kayla and Devak. Maybe their love has more to do with old standards about love: the heart wants what it wants, you can’t choose who you love etc, etc. I can get behind that. Sometimes reason can’t be appealed to when it comes to love, or maybe sometimes reason doesn’t even have to factor in when you find the right partner, no matter who they are. However, that doesn’t change the fact that Kayla and Devak are still in monumentally different positions and that Kayla has spent her whole life being oppressed by members of Devak’s class, who have reset GENs at whim. While I wouldn’t expect their different status’ to be a problem for a progressive boy with trueborn status, I did expect to see Kayla experience a little internal conflict. Examining the problems of your relationship and experiencing worry, or concern about the future of this relationship, doesn’t have to come at the expense of romance and it would be nice to see this novel acknowledge that.
Maybe her sudden and simple feelings towards him are just another case of the ever popular insta-love, or it could be argued that as Sandler is writing a piece of science fiction Kayla’s lack of freedom and Devak’s mastery of GEN’s wouldn’t necessarily lead to the characters having the same kind of troubled feelings as unequal characters in a novel like ‘Pages from a Tennesse Journal’. I don’t know if anyone is making that argument, but I’m going to pissily pre-empt it anyway and say that my problem with this line of thinking stems from the fact that Sandler has (according to the author’s note) based the caste system in ‘Tankborn’ on real life social practises in India. I think that use of Indian culture is different and exciting; in fact it’s one of the things that attracted me to this book. However, if an author is going to use a real life style caste system, then they have to be prepared to follow the use of that caste system through to its logical, real world conclusions. There are plenty of places were the characters are allowed to address the anger that inequality and ill-treatment creates, for example Kayla is given a voice to argue about the treatment of GENS and lowborns, as well as trueborn power in general, for example in this extract where she and Devak discuss the lowborns:
‘ “I’m told what work I’ll do and where I’ll live,” she went on. “I’m only a fifteenth year, but the trueborns could have me sent clear across Svarga Continent, far away from my family, and I wouldn’t have had any choice.”
“It used to be that way with the lowborns,” he said, “when we first came here, Only the trueborns had the money to build the colony ships. The lowborns had to work for their passage, be servants to the trueborns when they arrived.”
“But the lowborns agreed to work for the trueborns. And they didn’t have to do that forever. Now they pick their own jobs, live where they like, how they like. So, why aren’t the lowborns trueborns now?”
“Because of the adhikar. Lowborns don’t own land.”
“Because they’re not allowed to.”
“But that’s how the lowborns want it. They don’t want to become trueborns, tied down by an adhikar parcel…”
“How many lowborns have you asked about that?” '
It’s clear that Kayla is less than perfectly accepting of her place in society and she mentions that all GENs experience conflict over the way that the system relegates them to service. Yet Kayla has no similarly troubled internal feelings about being attracted to a member of the oppressor class. This seems strange as I feel it would be in keeping with her questioning character for the novel to explore some of the emotional problems such a system might present to any couples trying to bridge the caste divide. Keeping this emotional response out of the novel, seems to me to be fudging; picking and choosing; shunting characters into peculiarly easy emotional acceptances that suit the conclusions the novel’s plot needs to arrive at, instead of allowing the story to embrace the full range of human (and GEN) emotions.
I know that each individual experience of oppression differs. Not everyone goes through the exact same troubled confusion over how to react to those who have benefited from their oppression. And I so don’t want to claim that the only
valid reaction for Kayla to have about her feelings for Devak is internal conflict because he is a high-status trueborn. Still, I think because many people do go through that internal conflict, it seems kind of uncomfortable for a novel like ‘Tankborn’ to avoid addressing that somewhere. No one novel can encompass every variation of experience, but in the quest to represent individual experiences each novel also has to be careful not to block out emotional feeling in a way which reinforces troubling, dominant ideas. The idea that romantic love easily conquers social inequality, or that romantic love heals every rift is still so pervasive that I feel kind of sad every time a novel has the chance to redress that balance, without cutting its own romance off at the knees and just…doesn’t. At least that’s how I feel – comments are for alternate views.
For me, if a caste system forces people into slavery and a slave like Kayla doesn’t feel at least a little bit confused about having romantic feelings towards a member of the class that makes use of slaves, then I want some pretty firm reasons to explain why not. ‘Tankborn’ just doesn’t provide those kinds of reasons. When I read this novel shortly after reading realistic historical fiction like ‘Pages from a Tennessee Journal’ and ‘Wench’, which were so good at having characters examine unequal relationships and try to provide real2
reasons why these unequal relationships might still exist, it means that the society in ‘Tankborn’ inevitably looks a bit flat, a bit simplistic. I also think that if an author is going to make changes to the way that personal psychology works, then the logic behind those changes needs to be especially well worked out and explained. Authors may need to show their working, because in my opinion the heart of what makes it possible for readers to understand and care about a work of fiction, is usually the fact that characters act in recognisable ways and justifying themselves when they don’t act in ways the reader might understand. Without textual justification, it’s tough for readers to understand your character and once understanding is gone, I think empathy is out the window.
Returning to the plot, the third main, teenage character in ‘Tankborn’, is Kayla’s friend Mishalla. Mishalla is assigned to a mysterious work detail, where she cares for children who are spirited away by enforcers in the night. There are a couple of plots going on in this book, which eventually turn out to be related and while Mishalla is worrying about children being stolen away, Kayla is the recipient of some unauthorised data, which sets her on a path to help Devak’s grandfather in a mission she doesn’t fully understand until the end of the book. ( Some spoilers from here on )
So, I’m kind of half and half on ‘Tankborn’; it all feels like a bit of an unpolished jumble to be honest. Some aspects, like the sci-fi and the world building are shiny and cool. Some aspects, like the emotions of the characters, lack textual justification and end up making the novel feel kind of flat. The ending, which reveals all the big secrets was great, although I wish it had been more focused on breaking a privileged system and helping the GENs, rather than fixing one particular aspect of that society without disturbing the greater hierarchy. The epilogue seems less than necessary and again leaves me confused about the characters emotions and actions.
Now to be honest, although I add a lot of big concept sci-fi YA dystopias to my wish list, I rarely read from that part of the sci-fi genre. The ‘What if love were banned?!’, ‘What if your eye colour could get you killed?!’ side of the genre appeals to me, but I often hear of problems with the most visible titles that put me off exploring further. I think it’s super unfortunate that the first one I’ve read in a long time and ended up critiquing in depth, a novel where none of the main characters are white that comes from Tu Books, a publisher focused on diversity. I bet I’d find similar problems with the logic and social construction in some of the many, many books from this part of the genre, which focus on white characters and are published by traditional publishers. And it’s great to see a new piece of sci-fi that contains lots of female characters with darker skin (and a publisher who puts one of those characters on the front cover). It's just that parts of ‘Tankborn’ just were not for me at all and I hope I’ve explained why as fully and transparently as possible, so that you can make your own mind up about this novel.Other Reviews Rhapsody in Books The Intergalactic Academy SF Signal1
I can totally see how this construction of society is open to different readings than the ones I’m presenting here and I encourage you to bring them in the comments. I am the whitest white girl in the world, who is trying to learn about race and it is always best for the voices of people who know their stuff about race to be included alongside anything I might say.2
if perhaps hard for a modern reader to understand3
because GEN religion and social factors has conditioned them to belief in falsehoods, which would probably cause a lot of them to report the revolutionaries to the authorities, thereby destroying the revolution